From the Boston Review in 2013:
The philosophy of personal responsibility has ruined criminal justice and economic policy. It’s time to move past blame.
Barbara H. Fried
Barbara H. Fried, William W. and Gertrude H. Saunders Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, is author of The Progressive Assault on Laissez Faire: Robert Hale and the First Law and Economics Movement. She is also a member of the board of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University.
June 28, 2013
In an article published shortly before his death, the political scientist James Q. Wilson took on the large question of free will and moral responsibility:
Does the fact that biology determines more of our thinking and conduct than we had previously imagined undermine the notion of free will? And does this possibility in turn undermine, if not entirely destroy, our ability to hold people accountable for their actions?
Wilson’s answer was an unequivocal no.
He has lots of company, which should come as a surprise given what scientific research into the determinants of human behavior has told us over the past four decades. Most of that research, as Wilson says, points to the same conclusion: our worldviews, aspirations, temperaments, conduct, and achievements—everything we conventionally think of as “us”—are in significant part determined by accidents of biology and circumstance. The study of the brain is in its infancy; as it advances, the evidence for determinism will surely grow.
One might have expected those developments to temper enthusiasm for blame mongering. Instead, the same four decades have been boom years for blame.
Retributive penal policy, which has produced incarceration rates of unprecedented proportions in the United States, has been at the forefront of the boom. But enthusiasm for blame is not confined to punishment. Changes in public policy more broadly—the slow dismantling of the social safety net, the push to privatize social security, the deregulation of banking, the health care wars, the refusal to bail out homeowners in the wake of the 2008 housing meltdown—have all been fueled by our collective sense that if things go badly for you, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Mortgage under water? You should have thought harder about whether you could really afford that house before you bought it. Trouble paying back your college loans? You should have looked more carefully at job prospects for sociology majors before you took out the loans. Unless of course “you” are “me,” in which case the situation tends to look a bit more complicated. …
Why exactly are we trying so hard to make the world safe for blame? What have we gained and what have we lost in the effort? And is there an alternative?
The treatment of blame in moral and political philosophy closely tracks cultural and political sensibilities on the subject, and as a result will go far in answering these questions.
In the philosophical literature, arguments in praise of blame divide into two categories, distinguished according to whether free will is regarded as compatible with determinism. Compatibilists—as the name suggests—think the answer is yes: provided certain minimal conditions of voluntariness are met (you must not have been physically coerced into acting as you did, you must have the mental capacity to comprehend your actions, etc.), your actions are freely chosen, notwithstanding that they are predetermined. Incompatibilists think the answer is no: if a person’s actions are determined by antecedent conditions, such actions are not freely chosen.
Some incompatibilists, concluding that our actions are in fact predetermined, are reluctant to assign personal responsibility and blame. I will return to these “skeptical incompatibilists” later on. The category I want to focus on now are libertarian incompatibilists. Like skeptical incompatibilists, they believe that free will is incompatible with determinism. But they are libertarian incompatibilists because they reject determinism in favor of the view that we freely choose our actions. And, having stipulated that we are blameworthy if and only if we freely choose our actions, they conclude that we are blameworthy.
But what is the requisite sense of free will—of our actions not being determined by antecedent conditions—that makes someone blameworthy? And do we in fact have free will in that sense?
Recent decades have been boom years for blame—our collective sense that if things go badly for you, it’s all your fault.
For the metaphysician, the theoretical possibility that one could have acted otherwise in some alternative world may suffice to establish free will. But if the question is whether we should hold a real-life Smith blameworthy in this world, one would think that the requisite sort of free will is not metaphysical but practical: When all is said and done, how plausible is it to think that Smith could have acted differently?
To take an all too frequent scenario, suppose that Smith grew up in a neighborhood where drug dealing was the most common form of gainful employment. He was raised by a single mother who was a cocaine addict, and by the time he was twelve was supporting his family by selling drugs. When he was seventeen, he got caught up in a drug deal gone bad, and in the altercation that ensued, he shot and killed the buyer.
How should we think about Smith’s level of moral responsibility? Is there some magical moment at which Smith was transformed from the victim of his circumstances to the author of his own story? If so, when was it? What can we realistically expect of someone who finds himself in Smith’s circumstances with Smith’s history and biological endowments? And what is to be gained—and what lost—by adopting social policies that expect more? Given the high stakes of public blame these days, one might hope that libertarian incompatibilists would take these questions seriously. …
A morally serious inquiry into the requisite meaning of free will needs to face some basic facts about this society—for starters, that in the United States parental income and education are the most powerful predictors of whether a three-year-old will end up in the boardroom or in prison; that most abusive parents were themselves victims of abuse and neglect; that the norms of one’s peer group when growing up are powerful determinants of behavior; and that traits of emotional reactivity and impulsiveness, which have a large genetic component, are among the more robust predictors of criminal behavior. Such an inquiry would also need to address what evidence would suffice to conclude that Smith could have behaved differently. Is it enough that someone in a similar situation once pulled herself up by her own bootstraps? That the average person does? And how can we be sure that the situations are in fact similar in relevant ways?
Libertarian incompatibilism, in short, hangs profoundly consequential judgments on the insubstantial hook of an abstract possibility.
… If a schizophrenic can introduce evidence that he is not a full moral agent, why not someone in the grips of a major depression, or impulsive anger, or drug addiction? A teenager growing up in gang territory, whose physical safety and social inclusion depends on choosing sides?
… Of the more than 2 million Americans currently incarcerated, 15 percent show symptoms of psychosis (delusions, hallucinations, etc.); another 25 to 40 percent have serious non-psychotic mental disorders. And this does not even get to the severe deprivation most prisoners faced growing up. …
Public reactions to wrongdoing have been studied most extensively in the context of crime. Researchers have found that peoples’ evaluations of serious wrongfulness vary significantly across social conditions and individuals. Tellingly, the more information people have about the context of the crime, the person who committed it, and the circumstances he or she came from, the more nuanced are their views of moral responsibility. …
An hour listening to the average lifer in prison or the average at-risk teen talk about his or her circumstances, and most Americans would never view those groups in the same way again.
Richard Pryor talked to penitentiary inmates:
Unfortunately, most of us will never spend that hour.
… Which brings me to the second reason to reject the fatalistic claim that blame, as we currently practice it, is not going away. Change always seems impossible—until it doesn’t. After 40 years of policies that have relentlessly ratcheted up punishment, the direction has shifted slightly in the last few years. New York and Massachusetts repealed their mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. California repealed the most egregious elements of its three-strikes law.
… The final reason for cautious optimism is that we have gotten nothing from our 40-year blame fest except the guilty pleasure of reproaching others for acts that, but for the grace of God, or luck, or social or biological forces, we might well have committed ourselves.
Here’s a graph I just made up of homicide deaths by race (with Hispanics being allotted to the race they identify with) since 1968.
It would be useful if the data went back a few years earlier to before the great anti-blame crime wave of the liberal mid-1960s. But it’s pretty clear that society can bring down crime when we get angry at criminals and when we subscribe to Professor Bankman-Fried’s view of the blamelessness of criminals, we get more of them.
Our schools are broken, a new generation of kids has been lost, our prisons are crammed with petty offenders whose lives we have ruined in the name of a war on drugs that has been a total failure. And judging from the current mood of the country, the guilty pleasure of blaming others has not proved all that pleasurable.
I doubt there will be a groundswell of support any time soon for the view that others may not, after all, be to blame for the mess they (and we) are in. But the fact that we have gotten so little in return for our blame mongering at least opens up the possibility that people would be receptive to a new approach. The next time something goes terribly wrong, suppose that instead of immediately asking who is to blame, we were to ask: How can we fix this problem? Fixing problems is costly. But as we have learned from the past 40 years, so is not fixing them. In the long run, most of us stand to gain by changing the national attitude toward blame. Doing so won’t magically transform the world. But it will increase the odds of a better life for many, if not most, of us. That seems like a more-than-even trade for giving up a sense of self-righteousness that none of us has earned.